Print and Go Back ESPN.com: US Soccer [Print without images]

Wednesday, January 25, 2012
U.S. vs. Panama player grades

By Leander Schaerlaeckens
ESPN.com

Ronald Algandona, Zach Loyd
Zach Loyd started well, assisting on Graham Zusi's maiden goal before being subbed out due to injury.

It may not have been pretty, but the narrow 1-0 U.S. win over Panama on Wednesday night certainly was educational; even though learning to gut out results on the road in Central America can be dirty work, it is a vital skill heading into World Cup qualifiers.

Playing a man down for much of the second half, the U.S. did exactly that, getting an early goal and riding out the remainder of the contest to give Jurgen Klinsmann three consecutive friendly wins. It was an experience that should serve Klinsmann's young squad of mostly-MLS based second stringers well down the road, justifying what was otherwise an unattractive affair.

In a sloppy first half, the U.S. was quickly reminded what an opponent actually willing to take the initiative looks like after running laps around the bunkered-down Venezuelans on Saturday. However weak, Panama got two shots off early and showed every intention of overrunning the U.S. on the wings, where the Yanks were staffed by two national team rookies, Zach Loyd and A.J. DeLaGarza, both playing out of their natural positions.

Panama's job was made easier by a U.S. that was careless in possession and far from sharp in ball retention or distribution in the early going. This made it all the more surprising that the U.S. scored what would transpire to be the game-winner in the 9th minute. Loyd combined with Brek Shea on the left, lifted a ball into the box that was nodded on for Teal Bunbury by Chris Wondolowski, but when Bunbury missed, it fell kindly to Graham Zusi, who pummeled it into the roof of the goal from close range.

Jeremaine Jones
Jermaine Jones wasn't perfect, but showed leadership and grit in the heart of midfield.

Thereafter, the U.S. struggled to keep possession as much as it had prior to the goal, allowing itself to be outworked by Panama and leaving its high back line exposed whenever the ball turned over. Panama found far too much room between the lines -- central midfielders Jermaine Jones and Ricardo Clark were often neglectful in tracking back, allowing Panama to break out. That Panama didn't capitalize on meek defending was down to some splendid saves by Nick Rimando.

Meanwhile the U.S. attack -- or what there was of it beyond a first-half, 30-yard laser from Jones that was parried by the excellent Luis Mejia, who then recovered in time to push away Wondolowski's follow-up header -- was lopsided towards the left given DeLaGarza's struggles on the ball and Zusi pinching too far infield on the other wing. However, Brek Shea was so lackluster on the other flank that it didn't take much of a shift from Panama to shut that channel off, too.

In the second half, Panama started playing the ball over the top more and more, allowing Blas Perez and Luis Renteria to make runs in behind the U.S. central defensive pairing of Michael Parkhurst and Geoff Cameron, who were frequently caught out. It was on one such play in the 52nd minute, when the U.S. was caught high upfield once again, that a beaten Cameron was forced to run down Perez and bring him down on the edge of the box, earning him a red card.

The dismissal turned the game into an inadvertent exercise for the U.S.: holding on for the result in a tough road game. The U.S. had to manage both the game and the territorial battle better, forcing the midfield to drop further back into the defensive third even though it limited their opportunities to get forward. Their front line was already decimated as Wondolowski had to come off for a replacement defender in Jeff Parke, robbing it of all sting, but the U.S. got away with the defensive switch as Panama failed to get enough men forward and were poor with their passing in the attacking third.

It wasn't until the U.S. made a second round of substitutions that it got more of a hold on the game. With Parke lining up beside Parkhurst, the defensive line settled down and the midfield put together longer spells of possession, relieving any remaining pressure. And thus the U.S. rode out an unappealing game.

"Pragmatism" is an ugly word in soccer, but on nights like this, it will do just fine.

Grades: 1-10 (1 is lowest; 10 highest)

GK - Nick Rimando, 8: Made several brave saves in a half of work, including a cat-like one-on-one reaction-save that single-handedly kept Panama off the scoreboard.

D - A.J. DeLaGarza, 3: DeLaGarza isn't a natural right back. And given how bad a night he had there, we might not see him there again in a U.S. shirt for a long time.

D - Zach Loyd, 6.5: Before coming off injured in the 42nd minute, Loyd had been careless with the ball on a few occasions but was also responsible for what little danger the U.S. posed in the first half with good forays -- and great deliveries -- from the left flank. His cross set up the lone goal.

D - Michael Parkhurst, 6: Parkhurst was steady, although showed a propensity to be beaten over the top.

D - Geoff Cameron, 4.5: Didn't have a banner night in the back, culminating in a 52nd-minute sending off.

A.J. De La Garza
A.J. DeLaGarza struggled in an unnatural right-back position all night long.

M - Graham Zusi, 6: Scored the game winner, but robbed the U.S. of width on the right by pinching inside towards his natural position once again. That said, solid and strong on the ball.

M - Ricardo Clark, 6: A decent night of useful work from Clark, but didn't close down opponents enough in the defensive third in his 66 minutes of playing time.

M - Jermaine Jones, 6.5: The German-American remains mercurial, overcomplicating passes and turning the ball over too easily at times. But good overall distribution and a few moments of attacking flair redeemed his night once again.

M - Brek Shea, 3: Shea probably shouldn't have been out on the field tonight. He claims he has been fighting a cold, and he looked so lethargic it isn't hard to believe him.

F - Teal Bunbury, 3: Bunbury had an off-night. Out of sync with his teammates at first and isolated in the second half before coming off in the 76th.

F - Chris Wondolowski, 5.5: He flicked on a header for the only goal and was unlucky on his follow-up header on Jones's shot that was denied so well by Mejia. Despite being starved of service, Wondo worked hard and didn't really deserve to come off after the red card.

Substitutes:

Heath Pearce, 5: A passable night for the left-back in relief of the injured Loyd.

Jeff Parke, 6.5: Helped shore up the back line after replacing the ejected Cameron, bringing calm to the entire team.

Sean Johnson, 6: Was there when his team needed him in the second half, which wasn't often.

Jeff Larentowicz, 6: More unheralded but useful work closing gaps in 25 minutes of work.

Brad Evans, 5: Nearly invisible after coming on along with Larentowicz, but nevertheless helped the U.S. secure a little more possession and close out the game.

C.J. Sapong, 6: Looked far better out there than his predecessor Bunbury, using his imposing physique to hold the ball up and wrestle defenders.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.